Clyburn ushered Biden to the White House. Now, the SC Democrat wants his help in Congress. | Palmetto Politics

Former President George W. Bush leaned over to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn at President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration ceremony and reminded him of something that the longtime Democratic politician already knew. 

“You know, you’re the savior because if you had not nominated Joe Biden, we would not be having this transfer of power today,” Bush reportedly told Clyburn. 

It’s no secret that Clyburn’s coveted endorsement in South Carolina’s 2020 Democratic presidential primary paved the way for Biden’s path to the White House. Now, the third-ranking member of Congress hopes Biden will return the favor. 

“Endorsing Joe Biden to me was about the country and it still is about the country,” Clyburn, D-S.C., told The Post and Courier in a recent interview. “I do have some things I would love to see happen in South Carolina and the South, but I have to wait and see whether or not he responds to that agenda.”

In recent weeks, the House majority whip has had a spring in his step and took to Twitter to brag about some key Democratic legislative successes. 

He applauded Biden for signing the $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan into law, and the Democratic congressman’s effort to pass a comprehensive broadband infrastructure plan for rural America is quickly finding allies in the Senate. The House also passed the South Carolinian’s bill to close the so-called “Charleston Loophole” on gun purchase background checks, though it faces an uphill climb in the evenly divided Senate.

In his interview with the newspaper, Clyburn said this may be his most significant term in Congress since going to Washington in 1993. And, with a personal wish list of bills he’s proposed, he hopes Biden will help them cross the finish line. 

Then Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden gestures to Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., at a primary night election rally in Columbia on Feb. 29, 2020 after winning the South Carolina primary. File/Gerald Herbert/AP

Clyburn said he already calls White House staff every day to discuss his concerns and his policy agenda. “I’m interested in seeing other things happen that I’m confident that he is going to be helpful with,” he said. 

The 80-year-old congressman said he plans to run for reelection. If he wins, it will be his 16th term in Congress.

But the longtime politician also faces obstacles, such as potentially pestering some White House administrators with his bullish political style and the fact some of his bills could be doomed in the Senate because of the filibuster. Washington media reported this month that some White House officials have been irked by Clyburn’s public condemnation about a lack of diversity in the administration. 

However, Clyburn’s allies and close friends said he’s not worried about being a thorn in the White House’s side. Because, at the end of the day, the Democratic congressman is going to focus on results, not methods. 

“When Clyburn sets his mind to something, it is hard to get him off of it,” said Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime friend Jaime Harrison. “And I can guarantee you, he usually sees success in some measure or fashion.”

The administration also dismissed any talk of tension.

Biden and Clyburn have “maintained a close working relationship for decades — one that has resulted in pieces of legislation that have had an enormous amount of real-world, positive impact on South Carolinians and Americans across the country,” the White House said in a media statement.

“President Biden considers Whip Clyburn a trusted adviser and confidante, and whether in the Senate or in the White House, will continue to turn to the Whip for his guidance and counsel in shaping policy that helps working families,” the statement continued.

From primary to presidency

President Biden’s relationship with Clyburn has formed from their overlapping career trajectories in Washington since the 1990s. So when it came time for the influential congressman’s endorsement in last year’s Democratic primary, Clyburn told The Post and Courier he had pretty much had made up his mind.

Several months earlier and just before his longtime wife, Emily, died, she told Clyburn she loved Biden more than any other political leader. He had always trusted his wife’s opinion. 

On Feb. 26, 2020, at Trident Technical College in North Charleston, Clyburn uttered the secret that was no big surprise. “I know Joe, we know Joe, but most importantly Joe knows us,” Clyburn said at the time. 

Amanda Loveday, a political strategist in South Carolina, said the endorsement was a receipt in a relationship that had been built for 25 years. 

“From 2013 to 2019, before Biden even announced for president, he visited South Carolina 14 times in an official capacity,” Loveday said. “But Jim Clyburn had a hand in every single one of those in some sort of capacity. And that doesn’t go unnoticed as these relationships get built.”

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Clyburn’s imprint on the Biden presidency has been seen in several ways, including when Harrison, who made headlines for record-breaking fundraising in his unsuccessful bid to replace U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was tapped by Biden to lead the Democratic National Committee. 

Clyburn also lobbied for his protégé, former U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, to join the White House. He now serves as a senior adviser in charge of public engagement for Biden. 

Burying the filibuster

Clyburn has a lot he wants to accomplish this term. And even with Biden’s support, he faces difficulties with some of the legislation. 

His wish list: Passing the Charleston Loophole bill into law; rolling out his rural broadband internet effort; and helping modernize U.S. election laws and procedures. 

Each of them are rooted in subjects he’s deeply passionate about.

When Dylann Roof gunned down nine Black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in 2015 with a firearm he should never have had, Clyburn vowed to pass reforms. 

As a former schoolteacher in South Carolina, he knows how important education is, and said offering affordable internet will help level the playing field for a lot of rural students. 

As a longtime defender of civil rights, he’s passionate about passing the largest overhaul of U.S. election law since 1965 in an effort to improve voting access. 

But even with the U.S. House, Senate and White House in Democratic control, all of his bills face trouble because of the filibuster. 

The parliamentary procedure, used in the Senate to prevent a measure from being brought to a vote, has been used to cause legislative gridlock for decades. Prior to 1917, the Senate rules did not provide for a way to end debate and force a vote on a measure. This lead to grandstanding by charismatic politicians in an effort to delay legislation they didn’t like.

In 1957, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina broke the record for the longest filibuster at 24 hours and 18 minutes when the ardent racist attempted to block passage of the Civil Rights Act. Despite his attempt, the bill passed two hours after his daylong speech.  

By 1975, it was decided that three-fifths, or 60 of the 100 members in the Senate, would have to vote to close the debate and stop a filibuster.

This means Clyburn has to win over 10 GOP senators to make sure he can confidently get his bills to Biden’s desk.

But in a fiercely partisan post-Donald Trump Washington, Republicans aren’t surrendering their use of the filibuster anytime soon. Last week, Graham told reporters he “would talk until I fell over” to prevent passage of the For the People Act if the Senate changes the filibuster rules.

Clyburn has been doing what he can to encourage parliamentary procedure to change regarding the filibuster. He told The Post and Courier he has been in contact with Biden’s staff to share his views and concerns about it. 

But Clyburn also believes he can pass his bills without the elimination of the filibuster. Citing the passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which required only a simple majority to pass, the Democratic congressman said his bills might be able to fall outside of those rules. 

“There needs to be a work around the filibuster when it comes to civil rights and voting rights, just like we did for the budget,” Clyburn said. “Those are not things that require extended debate on legislating those things are guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States.”

Loveday agreed, and said that Clyburn’s experience in Congress puts him in a unique position to accomplish a lot of his policy goals even with the filibuster in place. 

“It may mean that you’re not going to get 100 percent of your wish list,” Loveday said. “But there are ways to get things accomplished that are on Jim Clyburn’s wish list that don’t necessarily require a 60-person vote in the Senate.”

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